Defining the “classic car” is no easy feat. It would be a gross oversimplification to consider every significantly older car a classic despite its condition, not to mention the fact that some automobiles never truly deserve the honorific of classic no matter how well they have been maintained. A Ford Edsel, for example, does not a classic make. (Unless you mean a classic failure; that much anyone will allow.)

We recently purchased a brand new Toyota Highlander Hybrid, and everyone in my family is quite taken with the vehicle. My son named it Rocky, though my wife and I are still not sure why. It drives well, gets great has mileage, has ample cabin space, and looks pleasant. But I’m under no illusions that Rocky is ever going to be a classic, and not only because I doubt that we’ll keep it for 25 years. (I hope not, really.) Why do I mention 25 years? Well, according to the Antique Automobile Club of America (or AACA), that’s the age at which a car becomes a classic. Before that… I guess it’s just old.

“Official” Designations of the Classic Car

25 years, the youngest age of the classic according to the AACA, is just one organization’s definition of the term “classic car.” In fact, each state’s Department of Motor Vehicles has its own take on the matter, with many certifying cars as classics once they are a mere fifteen years old. (That means my recently dispatched Volvo XC90 came pretty close.) Your insurance company probably has its own definition as well, with many companies considering a car a classic once it’s twenty years old.

According to the Classic Car Club of America, the term is much more specific. They use the designation primarily to cover select automobiles produced between the years 1915 and 1925 or between 1942 and 1948. Admittedly, there were some gorgeous automobiles sold in those two date ranges, but it seems far too limiting to me.

And if you’re thinking of importing a car to the United Kingdom, consider one built before the year 1976, as it will be entirely exempt from the country’s annual car tax (or vehicle excise duty, as the Brits call it).

Why the Classic Car Designation Matters

If you get pulled over while driving a 2011 Honda Civic and you’re not wearing a seatbelt, you can count on a secondary offense slapped atop whatever infraction led to the traffic stop. If you were driving a 1919 Ford Model T Coupe when you got pulled over (likely for missing a stop sign or yield and not for speeding; most models had a top speed of barely more than 40 miles per hour), that lack of seatbelt would be no problem. Most classic cars are exempt from most laws passed after they were sold. This means a classic car is not held to current emissions standards, air bag or restraint system rules, tempered safety glass windows, and other such regulations.

Classic cars can also be insured in their own unique category, as they usually have a greater intrinsic value due to age and scarcity. Spending the money on an official appraisal can actually save you money in the bigger picture as your classic car will be properly insured and covered in the event of damage, theft, or destruction.

(One quick note, to be clear: most of the regulatory exemptions a classic car enjoys mean the car is getting a pass despite being less safe and less clean than newer models; these exemptions may be good for the pocketbook but they’re not always good for driver safety or for the environment. Adding aftermarket seatbelts to an older car won’t ruin the fun.)

When Is a Car Considered Antique?

As with the classic definition, the threshold across which a car (or truck or motorcycle or other automobile) is considered an antique is also fluid and changes depending on who you talk to or with which organization your consult. Many state governments consider a car more than 45 years old to be antique, while some purists only label an auto that’s at least 100 years old as an antique. The general consensus, however, is that after fifty years, a car has crossed over from classic to antique. Now whether it’s vintage or not, that’s another long story and often the start of a heated discussion…

How Long Is a Car Considered New?

Between the time a car first rolls off the lot and the year in which it becomes a classic — however you choose to define that — there is a fair amount of gray area. When is a car considered old? When is it just… a car? And for how long is a late model car considered to be new? In many states, a car can be considered new until its title has first been transferred from a dealership to an owner, be that a private citizen or a business. This is true only to an extent, however, as most states also have mileage limits that govern the “new” status of a car. In some areas, a car can be considered new until it has as many as 1,500 miles on it, though few buyers will be thrilled by that definition. In other areas the acceptable mileage for the sale of a car considered new is much lower.

You can say without hesitation that any car that has been registered as belonging to a person or commercial entity is no longer officially new. But for how long can you consider your new car new? That’s really up to you, but I’d say after a year, you’re playing pretty loose and free with the terminology.

So… How Old Does a Car Have To Be Before It’s a Classic?

Here’s why I even brought up the new car thing: in the end, like calling your vehicle new even after a few months, you can call your prized set of wheels classic any time you want, even if your definition doesn’t jive with the AACA or Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs service definitions. But if you want to play it safe, go mainstream and consider say that any car older than 25 years is a classic, and anything older than fifty is an antique. That is… as long as they have been well-maintained and weren’t total junkers to begin with. There’s another term for those: old.